Why they hate us, part MMCCII

Why does the L.A. Times' circulation continue to drop? There are as many diagnoses as there are doctors:

Brady Westwater:

While three of the largest newspapers in the country had rises in their circulation figures, the LA Times had the largest drop both in absolute numbers and in percentage drop.

The News Walk:

And then there are the editorials, not quite as knee-jerk leftist as a couple of years ago, but still pretty silly. And the op-ed page: a repository of high-minded ignorance from the likes of Rosa Brooks and Erin Aubry Kaplan and other worthies with little to say, poor writing skills, little information to reveal, few analytic talents, but a column to file each week. Even the ineffable Robert Scheer was worth more space than this crew.

Taxman:

I find it interesting that papers with a reputation for being conservative, the Wall Street Journal, New York Post actually have increases in growth while the liberal papers, the NY Times, LA Times, Washington Post and Minneapolis Star Tribune are all down.

Joseph Mailander:

Five straight years of declining circulation, five straight years of pedophile priest stories, five straight years of Cardinal-bashing, five straight years of burgeoning Catholic regional growth, and still none of the local fishwraps are getting a clue about how sustained Catholic-bashing equals sustained drops in circulation. Good luck with Sam at the joystick!

Hugh Hewitt:

Put aside the long line of Times' scandals—whether the Staples Center special, Michael Hiltzik's sock-puppetry, the leasing of the Sunday opinion section to the editor's girlfriend's boss or the latest, Armeniagate--the real laugher is the paper's sense of importance, its preening about its role even as it became obvious to all that it was the Norma Desmond of Los Angeles media. Patterico is the real expert here, and even an hour spent rummaging through his archives will confirm the very harsh truth: The Times is an awful newspaper that doesn't have a clue about how awful it is or how it happened.

Patterico:

I hate the bias of Big Media in general and the L.A. Times in particular, but I don’t think it’s that bias that is driving these numbers. Rather, it’s the transformation of how people get their news, due to the revolution of the Web.

However, the two issues are not entirely unrelated. With the Internet comes access to a tremendous diversity of information sources—many far more accurate in their specific niches than the newspapers. More and more people are taking note, and faith in the news media, I think, is cratering as quickly as the circulation numbers, as Big Media’s bias is increasingly put on display.

Presto Pundit:

People Hate the L.A. Times

And circulation continues to crash.

L.A. Observed:

Not only did L.A. Times circulation take another hit today — down more than four percent — but Editor & Publisher named N. Christian Anderson III of the Orange County Register its Publisher of the Year. That even though the Register's circulation slipped 5% daily and 7% Sunday.

Res Ipsa Loquitur:

...the latter I reminded the biased reporter asking questions about the LA Times circulation numbers last week, and how the LAT has argely become irrelevant in a city where half the people are functionally illiterate. Their op-ed pages advocate a kamikaze mission for the LAT: support policy which effectively eliminates engish-speakers.

Here are the none-too-pretty numbers:

Read on »

 

Zell's bells

Some local reaction to that media-company purchase you may have read about.

Ken Reich:
Who would have ever thought, during the Chandler era, that the L.A. Times would one day be owned by the son of Jewish immigrants from Poland, and a strong philanthropic backer of both Israel and the Israeli support association in the U.S., AIPAC? Such facts should certainly have been mentioned in the extensive Los Angeles Times and New York Times coverage this morning, but weren't.
Bill Quick:
I wonder if this will have any effect on the LAT's naked anti-Israel, pro-Palestine bias in its reporting and opinion?
Nikki Finke:
Talking to LA Times staff today, I'm hearing similar responses to the Zell/Trib deal: "Horrifying". "Scary". "My resume is out". "My resume isn't out because I don't want to leave L.A." As a senior editor told me, "You can argue it both ways. People say, well, anything's better than what we've got now. Then there are others who say, wrong, wrong wrong, because things can always get worse." So it's with a long sigh that, based on my reporting today, I come to this conclusion: the deal is wonderful for the Chicago billionaire and media managers, and terrible for the 20,000 Trib grunts suddenly at risk because of the Employee Stock Ownership Plan.
Mickey Kaus:
Watch Out Zell! The giant newspaper you are buying is in the grip of a perverse cult! ... A rare Kausfiles Special report.
Emphases his, as always.

L.A. Voice:
The Times is bleeding. Cost cutting alone isn't going to save it. The product must be reinvented. [Asking Donald Rumsfeld to edit Current] may have been a crazy idea, but at least somebody was thinking outside the box and trying to save the paper.
L.A. Taco:
Our hometown newspaper, once a source of either pride or rage, and now a source of disinterest or confusion, has a new owner, conservative Real Estate financier Sam Zell. Is Zell the man to restore the Times to prominence, relevancy, and respect? Clearly not, he has zero experience with journalism, no roots in Los Angeles, and no driving mission to restore the paper. Furthermore, his motives in buying the paper are murky, and private ownership doesn’t mean much to a newspaper if the private owner is a. not local and b. not a newspaperman.
 

Now that we have your attention...

Our former editor's Daffy Duck routine has brought with it one benefit: We've been getting some better-than-usual traffic on this blog. So while we still have some eyeballs on us, I'd like to let all-y'all know about the many fabtrabulous new features we've been introducing at Opinion L.A. We have rolled out a variety of new online-only features, which we hope will begin to bridge the gap between "print" stuff and "online" stuff as the newsprint medium continues to wither and these here internets allow for even more and better news coverage.

You can start with our few-months-old Opinion Daily, a column that comes out each weekday, written by alternating members of the editorial board. Recent dailies of interest include Michael McGough's disambiguation of the political bedfellows in the Bong Hits For Jesus case; Andrés Martinez' moving tribute to Hal Rothman; Robert Greene's fascinating study of the future of direct democracy in the cellphone-voting age; and Sonni Efron's defense of economic sanctions.

Straight outta 1995, we've also brought online chat roaring back to life. Dig our recent chats with columnist Rosa Brooks and assistant editor Matt Welch, as well as the SRO blowout with columnist Jonah Goldberg. Look for more of the Opinion L.A. Chat in the weeks to come. 

Dust-up is our almost-newest feature, a weeklong debate between experts, wonks, politicians, blowhards and other luminaries, on topics in the news and/or in our region. This week's dust-up focused on best ways to solve L.A.'s traffic crisis. In recent weeks, we've had debaters go at it on performance-enhancing drugs in sports; the Scooter Libby trial; and Gov. Schwarzenegger's health care initiative.

That health-care debate, by the way, brought a spirited rejoinder from Pacific Research Institute's John R. Graham, which we were happy to run.  This brings us to yet another exciting new feature: Blowback, an opportunity for concerned readers to publish oped-length rebuttals to features that have appeared in the Times. Recent responses have come from the Venezuelan ambassador, a senior State Department official, and others. (Sorry, I just realized as I'm typing this that we don't have a Blowback archive: Will get to that asap!)

In old-fashioned "push" media, we'll be rolling out a daily email newsletter, within the next week I hope, that will keep you informed of what new stuff we've got going on at Opinion L.A.—including old media stuff, new media stuff, and an exciting blend of the two. Signup instructions will show up in this blog and at the Opinion front page, but if you'd like to get in early, email us at opinionla@latimes.com, and we'll set you up.

And of course, we still have all the old print stalwarts: editorials (those unsigned thingees that run on the left page of the print version and speak—more or less—for the board as an institution); opeds (signed columns written by people from oustide the Times opinion section); letters from our readers; the Sunday Current section; and our murderers' row of regular columnists.

I'd like to thank Andrés Martinez for his steadfast and enthusiastic support in guiding our new features and innovations through a work environment where change is frequently less than welcome. If not for Andrés, you would be looking at a much smaller catalogue of new features. I wish him the best, and hope that we can continue his ambition of making maximum use of new media to produce a better and more exciting Los Angeles Times. *

* I made a change to this last graf to eliminate some accurate but stylistically extraneous material. For the original version, see L.A. Observed and Patterico.

 

Comix late hit: cockroach survives cartoon holocaust

I didn't pay much attention to the brouhaha last week over the brief cancellation of La Cucaracha by the Los Angeles Times—a decision the paper came to regret and rescinded within a day, due to a reader-mail firestorm. Of course my only attitude toward any decision made by my bosses is: What a swell decision! Excellent idea, sir! That holds even for swell decisions that reverse earlier swell decisions, as was the case here.

But can anybody claim that it's ever a good idea to cut a comic strip? In exchange for an absolutely negligible financial savings and barely enough space to run a house ad, you get nothing but heartache from readers who recognize that once again the paper is giving them less while pretending to give them more. Last week's unpleasantness was actually a relatively successful sweep, since it got rid of a truly incompetent comic—Mallard Fillmore—that was almost unanimously hated and whose termination most observers applauded. The more dismaying thing for me was the Sunday Morning Massacre, which leaves the color funnies denuded of, among others, Brester Rockit: Space Guy, a visually interesting and more or less dependably funny strip.

Readers of the funny papers are always the most abused of the paper's many target demos, and the neglect puts the lie to the idea that there's a serious movement afoot to bring up a next generation of newspaper readers. A few months back, Josh Fruhlinger the Comics Curmudgeon took to the Times' OpEd page to offer some sage advice:

[M]aybe one reason readers are fleeing print is because the papers don't give them enough reason to believe print is anything special. Few comics fans would dispute that the funnies look best on paper, or that reading the comics in newsprint over breakfast is a pleasing ritual. Going back to the childhood of the modern newspaper business—in the graphically rich Hearst and Pulitzer papers of the early 20th century—one of the main attractions was always the Sunday morning treat of page after vibrant page of full-color comics...

[B]efore the print news medium gives up on new readers, maybe it's time to double down on the comics, to make the funny papers a selling point again: Give the comics an extra page. Move the funnies out of the entertainment-section ghetto and into the A section or Sports. Better yet, run the daily strips in a stand-alone insert—not just on Sundays. Get the advertising staff to start selling against the comics section (why should TV be getting all the ads for sugary cereals and action figures?). Do something, do anything, to make the funny pages interesting.

So much for that idea!

 

Spring Street memo

Futureshock For those of you who enjoy looking at the innards of newspaper self-criticism, Media Bistro's FishbowlLA has posted a copy of the Spring Street Project memo.

For more reaction to and analysis of the L.A. Times' new web-centric strategy, see Staci D. Kramer, Mack Reed, Mark Potts, Juan Antonio Giner, Paul Gillin, Barbara Iverson, Gary Bourgeault, Mathew Ingram, Tony Adam, Sally Falkow, Frank Barnako, Bob Meyer, M Carleton, Greg Sterling, Charles Apple, Media Wire Daily, S.D. Watch, and, naturally, the L.A. Fire Department.

 

A Spring Street in their steps

So, how did yesterday's whole L.A. Times web-refocus announcement go over in the community? Here's a sampling:

Ken Reich:

A Load Of Crap From James O'Shea [...]

Loada_crap A greater load of crap has seldom been unloaded on the L.A. Times staff than came this week from "editor" James O'Shea in an address to Times employees.

It was a dishonest speech, replete with misjudgments and failures to see things as they are, or to give the real reasons for things that have been happening, and it proves that O'Shea is unfit and ought to return home to Chicago. [...]

The prospect that everyone in the newsroom will now be expected to put the website first also is depressingly similar to the "synergy" that Tribune Co. said would mark the relationship between the L.A. Times and KTLA (Channel 5) when it first came to town after the purchase of the Times-Mirror papers in 2000. It never came to fruition, and without investment and much better skills, the website reforms won't take place either.

Howard Owens:

[T]he LA Times sounds like it's finally moving forward with its digital efforts.

My friend Rob Barrett gets a big promotion. This is great for Rob, of course, but even better for the Times.

More reviews after the jump.

Read on »

 

Spring Street Project unveiled!

Sponge_street_project We may not have written about the Manhattan Spring Street Project here for a while, but that doesn't mean revolution hasn't been fomenting! The results of the FutureThink committee are in, and they are scathing. From the James Rainey article:

Los Angeles Times Editor James E. O'Shea unveiled a major initiative this morning designed to expand the audience and revenue generated by the newspaper's website, saying the newspaper is in "a fight to recoup threatened revenue that finances our news gathering."

O'Shea employed dire statistics on declining advertising to urge The Times' roughly 940 journalists to throw off a "bunker mentality" and to begin viewing latimes.com as the paper's primary vehicle for delivering news. [...]

Among the impediments the [Spring Street] group cited or implied as stalling growth at latimes.com:

· Lack of assertive leadership and adequate focus on the website, both inside The Times and at the paper's parent, Tribune Co.
· Understaffing. Latimes.com employs about 18 "talented and dedicated" editorial employees, only a fraction of the 200 employees at the Washington Post's website and the 50 employed by the New York Times' site.
· "Creaky" technology that has made it impossible for latimes.com to host live chats between readers and journalists and to let readers customize stock tables or weather reports.
· Failure to integrate the newspaper's large news staff into operations at the web, contributing to delays in posting breaking news.

What does this mean for you, the little people? Read more, after the jump.

Read on »

 

"Manhattan Project" Shelved! "Spring Street Project" Rises From Ashes!

We continue to break crucial news for you here at Opinion L.A. about the L.A. Times' ongoing super-duper research project to figure out how to keep readers from burning their subscription cards, and how to transform a 940-employee newsroom into the New New Journalism-Company Thing. (For background, and very lively reader commentary, please consult Parts One, Two and Three.)

Today's shocker? "The Manhattan Project" has been vaporized as a name. The two-month quest will heretofore be known as "The Spring Street Project," in honor of the street bordering the Times that's closest to skid row, and which has become a shorthand of sorts for outsiders to refer to the House That Chandlers Built. Details of the nomenclature process were obscure as of press time, but we have it on excellent authority that "The Manhattan Beach Project" was popular among some participants, and that no one besides your humble narrator was agitating too loudly for "The Manhappenin' Beach Project." The latter is, of course, a tragedy.

At any rate, I can also confirm that the powers that be are looking closely at all your suggestions and critiques, so to keep those juices flowing, here are three more questions for the peanut gallery:

1) Is the paper too local, not local enough, or just right?
2) What tangible aspect of localness would you like to see? (A sector or community or government agency that isn't currently covered, a noted local writer that isn't currently hired, a news-you-can-use feature that would be helpful, etc.)
3) What local establishment should the writers and editors patronize more? Which one should they stop going to, at least for a decent interval?

Keep those answers coming! In the meantime, here's some more commentary about the inner workings of Spring Street:

FisbowlLA's Kate Coe continues her flurry of helpful suggestions:

If the Manhattan Project really wants to reconnect with Southern California, they might take a look at the work Rob Curley is doing, instead of sending out lame emails. Fast Company has a piece by Chuck Salter about the self-described "internet punk" whose hyper-local, multimedia websites have revitalized local papers. [...]

The LA Times must think that all this new media with its bells and whistles is fine for those little papers, but unseemly for an organ of such stature and dignity.

FBLA thinks that's what's at the core of the Times' troubles: it's just too good for its readers.

"FBLA" means "FishBowl L.A.," and not some kind of unseemly "Love Association," btw. Meanwhile, over at L.A. CityBeat, Mick Farren strokes the figurative goatee:

Why can't a city with a population in excess of four million support a quality broadsheet?

The blame falls most heavily on the Chicago-based Tribune Company, which, since its purchase of the Times in 2000, has relentlessly cut costs and conducted serial purges of editorial staff. Rumor claims Tribune will not be happy until it sees the paper yield something approaching an 18 percent return on its investment, which – in this era of dizzy communications flux – is nothing short of absurd. Equally absurd is Tribune's notion of a miracle formula that will entice under-30s to read hard-copy newspapers, and raise the Times' circulation back above the million mark.

The two words that spring to mind are "get real." The young demographic won't suddenly start reading newspapers, especially in a city with minimal mass transit

Longtime LAT needler (and occasional contributor to the Op-Ed page) Catherine "Cathy" Seipp gives some advice:

I suspect journalists are far more impressed by Pulitzers than readers, who tend to remember (and subscribe to a paper because of) an old-fashioned "Hey, Martha!" human interest story than the kind of worthy prize-grabbing thing that wins accolades from peers.

A basic problem at the Times, for instance, is the continuing weakness of the features section - home of the funnies and advice columns and so traditionally looked down on by the rest of the paper. But this is the section where kids first develop a daily paper reading habit, and I don't think you need a team of investigative reporters to learn that tolerating weak feature writing and editing in features is the surest way to alienate young readers for life.

Nor do you need to arrange a series of Deep Throat-style meetings in underground parking garages to realize that many Times staff writers turn in very little copy - Spring Street considers once a week reasonably productive - which means they're paid around $2,000 per mediocre, grudging piece. Wouldn't it be better to spend that money instead on freelancers, who, if they can't work themselves up into something worth reading, don't get paid?

Let the heads roll, I say.